The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz -- Book Review

"You live as long as I did in the heart of fuku country, you hear these kinds of tales all the time. Everybody in Santo Domingo has a fuku story knocking around in their family. I have a twelve-daughter uncle in the Cibao who believed that he'd been cursed by an old lover never to have make children. Fuku. I have a tia who believed she'd been denied happiness because she'd laughed at a rival's funeral. Fuku. My parental abuelo believes that diaspora was Trujillo's payback to the pueblo that betrayed him. Fuku.

It's perfectly fine if you don't believe in these 'superstitions.' In fact, it's better than fine--it's perfect. Because no matter what you believe, fuku believes in you."

I don't know how to review this book without sounding like an echo of all the reviews that have come before. I absolutely loved the book, read passages of it to my mother and sister (I'm home for Christmas) and even read out loud to myself to feel the rhythm of it. The writing is like everyday poetry, written to feel bare and natural. The Spanglish didn't bother me, I speak a little Spanish so there were only a few points where I ran across a sentence I couldn't approximate the meaning of.

I have a little experience with Hispanic culture, although I don't know any Dominicans, and I think that is part of what drew me into this book. I am 1/4 Puerto Rican and have visited some of my family there. The writing really reminded me of the easy they switch back and forth between Spanish and English in a single conversation, substituting whenever one language or the other supplies the better word. There's something rich and enticing about mixing languages, especially for someone like me who never got beyond the basics of a second language despite several years of schooling.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao pretends to be about Oscar, a fat, geeky Dominican teenager living in New Jersey, but in reality, it's a story about family and legacy. The book, which is narrated by someone who was once a friend of Oscar and his sister, spends most of its time travelling back and forth through several generations of Oscar's family, which may be cursed by the fuku, or not, it's never entirely clear. The story is laced with references to the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and even the Sound of Music and contains footnotes on Dominican history and the rule of Trujillo (also known as El Jefe, the Failed Cattle Thief, and FuckFace).

The book doesn't offer a pretty picture of Dominican life and culture, but rather is laced with sex, violence, and misogyny. Most of the characters are hard to relate to or feel sympathy for and at points you wonder why you care what happens to them at all, but yet the book draws you in. Like a train crash, you know its headed for disaster, but you just can't pull yourself away.

"I'm not entirely sure Oscar would have liked this designation. Fuku story. He was a hardcore sci-fi and fantasy man, believed that that was the kind of story we were all living in. He'd ask: What more sci-fi than the Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?
But now that I know how it all turns out, I have to ask, in turn: What more fuku?"

If you need a more detailed review, check out the always excellent New York Times Review here.

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LisaMM said...

My book club will be discussing this in February so I just skimmed your review, but I'll check it out again after I read it.

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